Chinese: a window onto one of the world’s oldest civilisations

Most of us would agree that with its population of 1.4 billion and its eye-watering industry and discipline, China is a force to be reckoned with, yet few of us know much about its culture despite the fact it has a history reaching back 5,000 years and there are now many people of Chinese origin living in our midst.

According to blogger Kelly Pang, one of the reasons Chinese culture may feel so alien to us is because it is a “coconut culture” which is hard on the outside but soft within. “While you may perceive Chinese people as being ‘colder’ than you are used to, this should not be interpreted as rudeness. A coconut culture is one where people present a formal exterior and close friendships are earned over time,” she says.

Given that Chinese civilisation has proven to be so sustainable, it is not surprising that Chinese teacher at King’s College Murcia, Laura Guirao Olivares, believes that it has much to teach us. “It seems strange that these thousand-year-old customs are still maintained today,” she says. “But having lived in China for 10 years, I was able to observe how useful they are to daily life and how they can improve our quality of life.”

One sure fire way of becoming more familiar with Chinese culture is to learn the language, an achievement that brings with it many other advantages in a world in which China’s economy promises to keep booming and its scientific community to keep gaining in prestige.

According to Eva Laoshi, the Chinese teacher at King’s College Madrid (Soto), “Besides the fact that learning Chinese helps us to gain a deeper knowledge of a culture that is thousands of years old and which has an increasing influence on our current lives, the chances of our students one day working either in a Chinese company or one that has important links with China is huge. If they speak Chinese they will have an enormous competitive advantage.”

Most of us over a certain age may feel blocked by the idea of getting our heads around a language like Chinese, which is so very different from Latin-based languages. For example, it has no phonetic alphabet yet extremely varied phonetics when spoken. “When it comes to the pronunciation of different words its like we are singing,” says Laura.

But while this may seem a little daunting, Eva stresses that it is not as difficult as it sounds. “It’s true that its very different from our language and that makes it seem like an impossible task but it isn’t actually harder than learning other languages,” she says. “Children particularly can learn it quite naturally without much conscious effort as the syntax is simple and it has a significant internal logic.”

That said, learning Chinese uses parts of the brain that learning other languages more similar to our own does not.

“Experts agree that learning any language is stimulating for the cognitive development of children but when it comes to learning Mandarin Chinese, there is additional stimulus, given that it uses parts of the brain that other languages don’t,” says Eva, referring to findings from neuroscientists. “This is due to two factors: that Chinese is a tonal language – the tone you say a word in changes its meaning – so that the two sides of the brain have to work simultaneously; and secondly, that written Mandarin forces the brain to establish a visual link between the meaning of a word and the character.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Laura adds that learning Chinese can have a positive effect on our ability to focus. “Given that it’s a language in which we have to link syllables with symbols, it has a considerable impact on our ability to concentrate,” she says.

But while the brain is working in new and different ways, Eva is keen to highlight the fact that the approach to learning Chinese at King’s is contextual and fun. “Our students learn through play because the learning is much faster if they’re enjoying themselves,” she says. “The classes involve a lot of games, competitions, and we make up stories and sing a lot of songs. Consequently, our students not only learn the language but they also become familiar of many aspects of Chinese culture.”